Little Rot by Akwaeke Emezi review – a wild weekend in New Lagos

Akwaeke Emezi’s singularly menacing new novel opens with an ending – that of Aima and Kalu’s relationship. Now, it is “all small talk, nothing she could hold with both hands, meaningless chatter that avoided the truth of what they had both become”. Little Rot, like all Emezi’s books – from their debut novel Freshwater to their memoir Dear Senthuran – measures the difficult push and pull between the self and the world.

Kalu drops Aima at the airport on a Friday evening. Their four-year relationship is over and they choose to go their separate ways: Aima to a high-society nightclub with her best friend, and Kalu to his childhood friend Ahmed’s exclusive sex party. Two Nigerian sex workers visiting from Kuala Lumpur and a celebrity pastor known as Daddy O enter the storyline, upending everything. What unspools is a dizzying, harrowing and entertaining journey as the characters’ fates collide. Mistakes are made, morals are questioned. Did their relationship ever have a solid foundation or was it resting on shaky ground? The stakes are high and the consequences are serious. In this world, everything comes at a price, and there’s a price to pay for every choice.

Little Rot is about hypocrisy, toxic masculinity and sexual cruelty. It is a novel oozing with dirty secrets and ugly reveals. The deliberately outrageous tone is not for the faint-hearted: enter at your own peril. Emezi is here to shred the facade of society, to unsettle and subvert rules and beliefs.

A lot can happen over 36 hours, as Emezi shows us through feverish prose, finely tuned plot twists, cinematic encounters and escapes. Little Rot takes place in New Lagos, a thinly veiled version of Nigeria’s largest city. It’s a phantasmagoric place – for the characters, moving through the “thick city” “felt like the third, maybe the fourth, world of that night”. The novel is an addition to the recent canon of crime thrillers excavating Lagos’s seedy underbelly, such as Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Its exposé of political and spiritual corruption is most reminiscent of Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief, but Emezi also tackles head-on the corruption of the self.

As the plot picks up pace, layers of pretence are peeled away. The city is “brash”, “pungent”, and puts the “briny taste of desperation” on its citizens’ skins. In an attempt to fit into the fabric of society, people choose superficiality. Those looking for a connection “don’t want a real person; they want someone pretending to be a real person, a character fitting himself to the role”. Emezi explores stigmas around queerness and hidden desires, particularly through the cast of male characters: “weak men, small boys”, who don’t know what actual power is – “who tried projections of it on for size but it never fit, as if they were drowning in their father’s clothes”. Ahmed “understood things Kalu didn’t tell anyone else, like how he was struggling to hold on to who he was even as the city tried to strip him of it”. Ahmed himself is “a snake who thinks it’s a man and can’t see it’s a snake. The skin doesn’t fit well.” By the end of the novel, not everyone can, or wishes to, look in the mirror. Will they recognise who they see?

Early on, we’re told that the relationship between Aima and Kalu was strong because Aima was good at “trying not to put too much pressure on things, trying to fit into slivers of space”. In the aftermath of the breakup, she realises that “that’s the problem with pressing yourself down too much, folding and folding when you’re not really made of a material that’s suitable for those kinds of creases. At some point, you just spring back up when you can’t take another bending, not a single pleat more.” It’s only by laying bare the little rots within us all that we can rise up and make space for our true selves.

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Little Rot is published by Faber (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

The Guardian

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